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Art history benefits us all. Why won’t the government fight for it?

25 October 2016

The news that history of art A-level is to be scrapped in England after 2018 has been greeted with incredulity by artists, teachers and academics. ‘This is a terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible idea,’ the artist Yinka Shonibare told the Guardian. ‘We are becoming a nation of philistines.’

A spokeswoman from AQA, the sole exam board to offer the subject, said that small student numbers (839 students took the exam this summer) combined with ‘the complex and specialist nature of exams in this subject’, meant that it was no longer feasible for it to continue to administer the qualification. Any exam board which protests that exams may be ‘complex and specialist’ is surely an exam board that is not fit for purpose. It sounds like an organisation floundering to defend a cost-cutting decision at the expense of its official responsibilities.

Many critics have laid the blame at the door of former education secretary, Michael Gove, linking the decision to cut history of art to the curriculum reform instigated under his watch, when a cull of those subjects perceived to be ‘soft’ was initiated. For his part, Gove has denied ever classing history of art with the fluffy stuff, and has countered that more state schools ought to have offered the subject, and that more head teachers should have promoted it. Given that such a development was hardly ever likely to be organic, it is all the more disappointing that the decision should have been made at a time when the Association of Art Historians has recently devised and begun to put in place a strategy that might have seen that hope become a reality (it included the publication of the first A-level art-history textbook designed specifically for teachers and students).

It would be salutary to hear the latest incumbent at the Department for Education condemning the AQA decision, and to see her taking action to reinstate an A-level qualification in the subject. This government has not – yet – shown any sign of dropping the support for the creative industries that was a hallmark of both the coalition and David Cameron’s short-lived second ministry. But in allowing history of art to drop off the curriculum, there is no doubt that it risks chipping away at the future prosperity of the sector. At the time of writing, the current education secretary, Justine Greening, has not made any public comment on the issue. Did she catch the irony, I wonder, when on the day after the story broke she attended the unveiling of a restored Lynn Chadwick sculpture at Roehampton University?

At my secondary school in London, history of art wasn’t among the subjects offered at A-level. But I was lucky that one of the English teachers, whose classroom was plastered with posters of Italian altarpieces, ran a short course on Renaissance art to which pupils could voluntarily sign up (and I was lucky that it was that type of school). The course included jaunts to the National Gallery, where we stood and looked at Piero’s Baptism of Christ for a long time, and to the V&A, where he led us through what seemed like a labyrinth before anchoring us in front of a roundel by Donatello. Not only did these experiences open up a world of art to me; they suggested ways of looking and thinking that, with hindsight, were at least as important as any of the critical or analytical skills that I learnt as a 17-year-old in my official A-level classes.

This was an English teacher, and at a school that could indulge in the luxury of offering extra-curricular cultural education. But where art history is taught officially in schools, there will now be inspirational teachers facing up to the possibility that they may soon be surplus to requirements at a time when there ought to be a growing number of teachers opening the subject up to pupils from a far wider range of backgrounds. How will we ever defeat the notion that art – and the arts – remain the preserve of the privileged, if we allow the teaching of their history, and of the tools to analyse them, to drop out of circulation?

From the November issue of Apollo: Preview and subscribe here.